The spirits of war

By Peter Michalzik

24.05.2009 / Frankfurter Rundschau online

Perceptions of the theatre group Rimini Protokoll are characterised by terms such as ‘new forms of theatricality’, ‘anti-illusionism’, and ‘reality and fiction’. It’s often pointed out that so-called ‘experts’ and not actors are on stage here. People play themselves, the relationship between the role and the self is redefined, you see and hear real individuals playing themselves, which seems to some like magic.
Rimini Protokoll is however interesting less for this kind of theory than for what they portray: reality. This theatre lives from the stories its experts tell. The better the story, the greater the power of the theatre. Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel have now taken on the topic of war, which has been at the centre of their theatrical work from the outset. By the time of the First Gulf War with its camera bombs at the latest, world political and strategic military events had in fact been theatricalised.
Rimini‘s ‘untheatrical’ theatre work can be regarded as a counter-movement to this theatricalisation. The group strips and demystifies spirits that humanity itself has called up. The initially apparently strange combination of war, worst-case-scenarios and magic, which Rimini Protokoll has chosen for its new work in Dusseldorf entitled "Der Zauberlehrling" (‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’), is almost forced on them by reality: Let’s demystify the evil spirits of war!
On the stage, whose centre consists of a small stage framed by light globes and a red velvet curtain, are two magicians. On the left Berlin’s King of Magicians, an old man ‘from a time when illusionism was still really the business of magicians’, as one is immediately prompted to think. Günter Klepke makes sounds, tells his stories and does the Indian Rope Trick. On the right is magician Markus Kompa. He makes tables float through the air, can read minds, and is the lawyer of Uri Geller, who not only bends spoons, but also claims to have used his energy to prevent World War Three. "As we can see, he managed it", says Kompa.
Kompa is something like the intellectual core of the performance. He has long been conducting research into the relationship between war and conjuring, into Robert Houdin, who ‘magicked away’ a war in the 19th century, into the great magician and Nazi Hanussen, who inveigled thousands every day and predicted the Reichstag fire and so lost favour with the Nazis, and into Stanislaw Petrov.
He‘s the man we really all have to thank for the fact that we’re still alive. Stanislaw Petrov, lieutenant-colonel and, on the 23rd of September 1983, officer on duty in the Serpuchov Bunker, the headquarters of the USSR’s early warning system. On that day, the computer showed that nuclear missiles had been launched at the USSR from the USA and the lieutenant-colonel, in spite of everything, – all the previous precisely specified procedures, all the uncertainty, all the fear, all the fearfulness of the moment and all the eternity in that instant - decided not to start the chain which would lead to a nuclear counter-strike.
He was the first person in that chain, he says. Nobody, and that was clear to him, nobody would review his decision. He didn’t want to be the man who started World War Three. He says all this in a wonderfully quiet and reserved Russian. He’s here because he wants to tell his story as it really happened and not in the way that the media’s hunger for sensation finds it most spectacular. So there stands a grey, old man, grey jacket, full head of silver-grey hair, grey moustache, who seems so touching, dusty and dry, and tells calmly and tranquilly, with restrained wit and charm, of a lonely, critical moment.
Then there’s the woman who was pulled out of Iraq because a new government had been elected in Iceland. The new government was alarmed about something it didn’t know before: that the country had troops in Iraq. Iceland has no armed forces. The ‘troops’ consisted of this one woman. Icelandic journalist Herdis Sigurgrimsdottir trained soldiers in Bagdad to deal with the media. This was the contribution of Iceland, a Nato founder member, to Nato’s mission in Iraq. Ms Sigurgrimsdottir is a picture of health and tells us how it was, over there in Iraq.
In "Der Zauberlehrling", war is not only something illusionary, fictive, but something childish, playful. It loses its horror. Doubtless it does us good to see it like this, even if it is perhaps an illusion. Moments of real emotion emerge in this simple, effect-abstinent theatre. This theatre really lives from the people who make it. The "Zauberlehrling" still seems very unfinished. Sometimes you get the feeling that the four protagonists don’t know how it’s going to go on. There are moments not only of emotion, but of disorientation. But in a strange way that makes the theatre on this evening not only more real, but also more open to emotions.


The sorcerer's apprentice